The Senate's Republican and Democratic leaders can't agree on much, but both say they want to dedicate weeks to passing legislation to fund the government next year — and avoid the annual take-it-or-leave-it vote on a $1 trillion-plus catchall spending bill.
For now, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer are saying all the right things to try to revive the older, more deliberative ways of doing Senate business rather than bundling the 12 annual spending bills together.
Critics say it gives too much power to top leaders while rank-and-file lawmakers are shut out of secretive negotiations.
President Donald Trump is playing a role as well, promising that he won't sign any more such "omnibus" appropriations bills.
"I say to Congress: I will never sign another bill like this again," Trump said last month after signing the latest catchall spending bill. "I'm not going to do it again. Nobody read it. It's only hours old. Some people don't even know what's in it."
Schumer and McConnell, along with the top Republican and Democrat on the powerful Appropriations Committee, were meeting Tuesday afternoon to try to chart a way forward.
The meeting comes just weeks after Congress passed a months-late, $1.3 trillion behemoth measure that came after several stops and starts, including a three-day government shutdown in February. That bill followed a separate showdown on setting the overall level of spending for agencies, including the Pentagon, which would otherwise have faced budget cuts.
At issue in the almost one-third of the federal budget that is passed every year by Congress. It's been years since the annual appropriations process — which used to dominate the House and Senate floors in the summer and early fall — has gone as designed.
"We don't want to just jump from crisis to crisis," said Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala. "We owe it to the Senate. We owe it to the people. We owe it to the agencies. We owe it to our soldiers."
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the panel's top Democrat, agreed.
"The Senate can't go on like this — just go to the brink and then past stuff at the last minute," Leahy said.
The overall level of spending has already been agreed upon for the upcoming round of bills, reducing the potential for fighting and allowing more time for floor debates.
Previous attempts to revive the once vibrant appropriations process have failed. A key problem is that many House conservatives say the spending levels in the upcoming bills are too high and they can't vote for them. But Republicans still add policy provisions that Democrats regard as poison pills. That leaves many measures short of the necessary support and caused the process to stall when Capitol Hill leaders tried to revive it two years ago and in 2014.
Schumer, however, brings a new face to the table since he wasn't the top Democrat during previous attempts to make the system work better.
"I'm more optimistic than I've been in the past," Schumer told reporters Tuesday.
McConnell sounded a little more skeptical, saying the current system is "completely broken and the only way to fix it is to start passing bills. We have a top line. We know what we're going to spend, and it'll be an interesting test."